The Bills' new and improved linebacking corps looks to shore up a defense that struggled mightily against the run in 2007. Buffalo will look to this unit for stability that was clearly lacking last season, when they were often gashed for huge gains and were unable to get important stops on third down and in the red zone.
All eyes are on the Bills' shiny new toy, free-agent pickup Mitchell on the weak side. Mitchell started in 19 contests for the New York Giants, including Super Bowl XLII, and will now be able to show off his newly-acquired hardware in Buffalo. The 29-year-old Mitchell was responsible for 87 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, but Bills fans may remember his only interception of the season: a week 16 pick of Bills QB Trent Edwards that he brought back to the house for six in a Giants comeback victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
To the middle linebacker position returns Paul Posluszny, who broke his arm in a week 3 loss at New England and was lost for the season. "Poz" led the team in tackles in his first two NFL games, recording an impressive 25 stops in his brief, pre-injury playing time. He essentially gets a second crack at a rookie season, but this time with more preparation for NFL game speed and more knowledge of Perry Fewell's defense, which can only help the young stalwart MLB.
Starting on the strong side is one of Buffalo's most reliable players, defensive captain Angelo Crowell. Now in his 5th NFL season and his 3rd as a starter, Crowell looks to again bring down every ball carrier in sight. According to the Bills, Crowell posted a team high 140 tackles last season after starting every game. Crowell tore a triceps in the season finale in 2007, but he appears to have fully recovered and rehabbed in the offseason, and should return to form right away. At 28-years-old, Crowell is entering the prime of his career, and also happens to find himself in a contract season, so it's reasonable to expect big things from the budding superstar.
Certainly, Bills fans have their fingers crossed that injuries do not plague the team as they did last year. If the injury bug were to strike at the linebacker position, however, the Bills have some serviceable and proven reserves waiting in the wings.
Keith Ellison, replaced by Mitchell at WLB, recorded 45 tackles in 9 starts last season and would assumedly take over in the case of an injury to either Crowell or Mitchell.
John DiGiorgio, a former undrafted free agent, proved last season that he could be a starting-quality MLB in the NFL. He replaced Pozluszny for the final 13 games of the season, and recorded a gargantuan 137 tackles and 7 tackles for loss. Expect to see the 3rd year pro being called upon throughout the season on special teams and in spot duty on defense, as DiGiorgio has certainly earned his share of playing time.
Hometown hero Jon Corto was switched from S to LB, which allowed him to make the team's 53-man roster. He doesn't figure to see the field much on defense barring multiple injuries, but will certainly be a factor on special teams, and his Orchard Park supporters will make themselves heard on Sundays at the Ralph. Alvin Bowen, the team's 5th round selection in the 2008 draft, was placed on IR after a knee injury suffered early on in training camp.
The primary concern of the linebackers in 2008 will be to help stop the run, and to make plays to get the Bills offense the ball with good field position. Last year's shoddy run defense could be blamed for struggles in several contests, including losses in weeks 12, 15, and 16 to the Jaguars, Browns, and Giants, respectively. In these games, the aforementioned teams were able to run through gaping holes for large chunks of yardage, and kept the Bills defense on the field with a steady dose of the ground game. The 2008 defense, featuring a healthy Paul Pozluszny and newly acquired Kawika Mitchell, does not plan an encore performance.